17 – Instructions

Preliminary Steps

Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Claire Carly-Miles

At the beginning of a project in which you will be writing a set of instructions, it is important to determine the structure or characteristics of the particular procedure you will write about. The following sections delineate some steps to follow.

Perform a Careful Audience Analysis

Early in the process, define the audience and situation of your instructions. Remember that defining an audience means defining the level of familiarity your readers have with the topic. As you analyze your audience, consider as many factors as you can. What is their level of knowledge? Will they need basic terms defined? Would they benefit from visuals? How will they be accessing the instructions? Will they be reading and following the instructions at the same time?

Determine the Number of Tasks

How many tasks are there in the procedure you are writing about? The procedure is the whole set of activities your instructions are intended to discuss. A task is a semi-independent group of actions within the procedure: for example, setting the clock on a microwave oven is one task in the overall procedure of operating a microwave oven.

A simple procedure like checking the oil in a car contains only one task; there are no semi-independent groupings of activities. A more complex procedure like using a microwave oven contains several semi- independent tasks such as setting the clock, choosing the power level, using the timer, cleaning the interior, and maintaining the microwave, among others.

While some instructions have only a single task, they contain many steps within that single task. For example, imagine a set of instructions for assembling a swing-set: in some cases, that task may contain more than 130 steps. When you have several steps, a good approach is to group similar and related steps into phases, and start renumbering the steps at each new phase. A phase, then, is a group of similar steps within a single-task procedure. In the swing-set example, setting up the frame would be a phase; anchoring the poles in the ground would be another; and assembling the box swing would be still another. The following two sections will help you consider how to write instructions for a task containing multiple steps:

  1. Determine the best approach to the step-by-step discussion.
    For most instructions, you can focus on tasks or you can focus on tools (or features of tools). In a task approach (also known as task orientation) to instructions on using voicemail, you’d have these sections:
    • Recording your greeting
    • Playing back your messages
    • Saving your messages
    • Deleting your messages

These are tasks—the typical things the reader would want to do with the machine.

On the other hand, in a tools approach to instructions on using a photocopier, there likely would be sections on how to use specific features:

    • Copy button
    • Cancel button
    • Enlarge/reduce button
    • Collate/staple button
    • Copy-size button, and so on

If you designed a set of instructions on this plan, you’d write steps for using each button or feature of the photocopier. Instructions using the tools approach are hard to make work. Sometimes, the name of the button doesn’t quite match the task it is associated with; sometimes you have to use more than just the one button to accomplish the task. Still, there can be times when a tools (or features) approach may be preferable.

  1. Design groupings of tasks.
    Listing tasks may not be all that you need to do. There may be so many tasks that you must group them so that readers can find individual ones more easily. For example, the following are common task groupings in instructions:
    • Unpacking and set-up tasks
    • Installing and customizing tasks
    • Basic operating tasks
    • Routine maintenance tasks
    • Troubleshooting tasks

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Claire Carly-Miles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.